ruzmarì's Reviews > Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
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's review
Jan 22, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: juvenilia
Read in November, 2007

What I learned from this book? The title is the best part.

After a Tristram-Shandy-esque opening, the novel progresses wryly through the memories of its narrator, the incredibly (please take that word at its most etymological, literal level) well-read Blue, who is half a sandwich short of a full-blown child-prodigy picnic and quite proud of it. Blue has spent her childhood as a half-orphaned nomad (her mother died when she was five, and her academic father accepts only visiting faculty positions, and only by semester engagement), essentially reading (and sometimes memorizing) the Great Works of All Time in preparation for her ultimate career as a Harvard undergrad. Why this is the aim of her life instead of a stepping-stone on the path toward greater achievements, the reader is left to chalk up to the true juvenile tenor of the book.

If Blue's childhood and lofty objectives seem improbable, they are at least marginally plausible. After all, mothers do die, fathers do move their families around the country from one university town to another in old station wagons, and children do memorize Shakespeare. (They don't, in my admittedly limited experience, tend to memorize Stephen Hawking, but maybe I have just met the wrong children.) It's once Blue and her father "settle" - a term I feel should be used with extraordinary, dare I say unbearable, lightness in the case of this narrative - in the town where Blue will spend her senior year of high school that the novel becomes simultaneously its most vividly realistic and its most unbelievably far-fetched - and with that paradox comes the novel's real downfall.

Pessl's approach is self-consciously creative (the novel includes visual aids and its last pages are an essay test for the reader). Her descriptions of the social networks and pitfalls of high school, especially high school in a small town, are incomparable ; her attribution of intelligent conspiracy to high-school students (whose main preoccupations give them the emotional maturity of third-graders), in a measure that would shame Kenyan politicians and Halliburton alike, is somewhat harder to take in. The novel is written with energy and vivacity ; the language is alive and engaging ; but it is also really full of logical leaps and assumptions that undercut its own intelligent structure and interest. Pessl quotes liberally and smoothly, and part of the reason for that tendency might be her own desire to create characters who take on the dimensions and amplitude of Shakespearean heroes. Unfortunately, she gets caught in her own net, since ultimately these teenagers are not the tragic kings and queens she (and they) wish they were, but - well, just teenagers. Also, after 350 pages of whiny, self-congratulatory dialogue among the group of gifted adolescents comprised by Blue and her band of misfit friends, I didn't want to read any more, I wanted to push pencils through all their eyes.

I can't talk about the end of the novel without giving away Important Plot Elements, so suffice it to say that Blue makes it to Harvard, and moves away with great drama and intense self-appraisal from the gang of brilliant outcasts of her youth. Of course, she is now merely part of the largest gang of brilliant outcasts possible, and as the novel closes I think it is okay to wonder what she has actually either learned or accomplished in the book's willful picaresque. I know what I learned : high school is a narrative period best left untouched by young writers.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Matt I don't even particularly think I'll like this book, but after a review like that, I can't help but want to read it. I blame you...

Matt Okay, so I liked it - but felt much as you did. And, as you're better at succinctly saying such things, I'm linking to your review in mine. See also: I'm lazy.

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